The Politician Versus the Collective (A critique of the pork barrel system in the Philippines)

September 30, 2013

by superadmin

IBON Features | COMMENTARY | By Edberto M. Villegas, PhD | It has been a long way since from the culture of the Katipunan to the present pork barrel system in the Philippines,a legacy of colonial US to the country to make its political protégées follow its bidding

(First of two parts)

The controversy regarding the pork barrel system, started by the blatant misuse of the PDAF, only reveals the persistence of the feudal culture in our society. Under the feudal system, it is the individual or families who dispense out favors and largesse to subordinates. It is to them where gratitude is due after the success of great endeavours like battles and expeditions to unknown parts of the world. Think of the Tudors of England and Magellan of Portugal. It is the kings who hold the power of the purse and decide on the undertaking of grand projects, for instance, the construction of the Palace of Versailles by Louis the XIV of France. The dispensing of funds either through the notorious PDAF and even under President Aquino’s Special Purpose Fund (SPF), 18 times bigger at P450 billion than the former (P25 billion) in the 2014 national budget, is just a carry-over of this feudal practice where the individual or certain families reign supreme and are hailed as redeemers from misfortunes by the people.

The pork barrel system in the Philippines was introduced by the Americans in 1922 and retained in the 1935 Constitution under the Commonwealth government. The US colonial government nurtured Filipino families belonging to the so-called principalia under the old Spanish regime strengthening their dominance as big landholders in the Philippines through selling lands to this class. It is to be pointed out that these lands were confiscated from the Katipunan, which had expropriated large friar and other lands from the Spanish government. In fact the emerging class of the comprador bourgeoisie, who were engaged in the export of agricultural products, was expanded by the Americans , who made them their trading partners under such laws as the Free Trade Act of 1909 and the Bell Trade Agreement of 1946.

The election to the 1916 Philippine National Assembly consolidated the position of the comprador class in Philippine politics as the possessions of properties and high education were made requirements to qualify for this election. The pork barrel system of 1922 assured the entrenchment of the hold of US-trained politicians in the likes of the landed Montelibanos and Osmenas in their various regions as their constituents look up to them as the givers of sustenance in times of need just like the feudal lords. It is to be noted that the number of tenants in the Philippines increased from 18% of the agricultural labor force in 1903 to 38% in 1948. Thus, the feudalization of the Philippine rural areas became more extensive but now under the new system where the country became an exporter of cheap agricultural goods to the US or what is called the semi-feudal role of the Philippine economy.

The pork barrel under the Americans is the privilege granted to lawmakers to identify projects in their areas and insert them as allocations in the national budget. The limit to the amount of fundings for identified projects was often determined by how close and influential one is with the US governor general, and later to President Quezon of the Commonwealth government. These highest leaders acted like kings of bygone eras who had their favorite vassals. And in order to assure that the voters or constituents will know who provided them with the projects or services, it became common practice to attach to these undertakings funded by public money the names of politicians who sponsored them. Thus, patronage politics, a basic feature of a feudal system, became more marked in our society.

The Local Government Code (LGC)of 1994 further aggravated the rule of political dynasties and its corresponding bane of warlordism (a glaring example of warlordism in the country is the family feud of the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatos in Maguindanao) as this law granted more autonomy to local leaders, for instance, taxing their constituents. The World Bank lobbied for this law as it lessened the revenues to be allotted to LGUs from the national budget so that the costs to be saved can be channeled by the government pay off its foreign debts. The supposed objective of the LGC was to decentralize authority from the national to the local level. However, it failed to consider that the structure of rural Philippines still remains feudal with big landlords and their tenants and plantation workers, a condition similar to the decentralized fiefs of the vassals in relation to the rule of the overlord (the king) in classical European feudalism.

Under the administration of Corazon Aquino, the pork barrel of congressmen and senators was converted in 1990 into lump sums or specified amounts, though as usual, influential lawmakers can increase their shares from the executive branch of the government. The pork barrel was dubbed the Country Development Fund(CDF) with an initial budget of P2.3 billion. After the abuse of the CDF was criticized by some quarters of society, it was renamed in 2000 with the euphemistic title of the current Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). Under the Arroyo regime, each congressman was granted P70 million and senators P200 million each.

In practice, the pork barrel serves as campaign funds during the terms of lawmakers for the coming election, besides endowing these people with huge stashes of cash to recover from their expenditures from last elections and to afford them to live like the aristocrats of old. No wonder political philosopher and leading 1978 French revolution theoretician Jean Jacques Rousseau, while commenting on representative government in his book “The Social Contract”, observed that the new lawmakers with their power of the purse merely took over the privileges of the hated aristocrats. For any government that grants to any person the discretion to spend the money of the public encourages the rise of a personality-based politics, even personality cults, no different from a feudal culture where the decrees of kings were considered the will of God. (Next: Participative democracy: substitute to the pork barrel system)

* Dr. Edberto Villegas is a retired professor of development studies and political economy at the University of the Philippines-Manila. A former political prisoner, he is now active in people’s movements and has authored several books on local and global socio-economic history and politics. He is a member of the IBON Board of Trustees.